How to Mix the Color Magenta

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Whether painting in oils, acrylics or watercolors, magenta, along with cyan -- a blue almost the color of turquoise -- and yellow, is a primary color in modern color theory. A deep divide remains between traditional and modern color theory, but whether you subscribe to the traditional belief that the color wheel centers on a hub of red, blue and yellow, or to modern color theory, mixing magenta is an adventure.

Magenta as a Primary Color

Some painters mix magenta by blending red and blue. But, since red also contains yellow, the result is more violet than magenta. But you can mix magenta with yellow for red-orange, and then add more magenta to red-orange to make red. This means, as nature artist and educator John Muir Laws says in Reinventing the Wheel, magenta, rather than red, is a primary color, because primary colors cannot be created by mixing other colors.

If you want hot pink, add white to magenta, or, if you're working with watercolors, add water to magenta. Dilute red, however, and you get light red, not pink.

Using magenta like a primary color allows you to paint with a multitude of colors that you could not get with the traditional primary color of red. If you're looking for vivid purple, reach for the magenta and cyan.

Mysterious Magenta

Playing with prisms, Sir Isaac Newton noticed magenta was missing from the visible spectrum of light. Neuroscience site Biotele asks visitors to stare at a magenta-colored dot and then look at the white space next to it. The dot reappears -- but as green. After-images appear only as complementary colors. Instead of complementing red, as the traditional color wheel shows, this experiment favors the theory that magenta, not the bright fire-engine red of the traditional primary colors, is complemented by green. When Newton used two prisms to make rainbows, superimposing the red onto the blue, he saw magenta.

Magenta is elusive, as in here today, gone tomorrow -- or after too many days in the light. In the painting world, colors likely to fade are called fugitives. Magenta is among the most notorious of fugitives. The magenta hues are rarely found in laboratory-made pigments, and the organic magentas are almost never permanent.

Capturing Magenta

Artists have their favorite magentas, some more permanent than others. In How to Mix and Use Colour, author Tony Paul recommends turning to the quinacridone range of magenta pigments for a permanent magenta in the hue desired. Check the manufacturer's label for the pigment's lightfastness rating.

Handprint.com suggests the following magentas for staying power:

  • Quinacridone magenta, made from Pigment Red 122 is a a semitransparent, intense violet-red pigment.
  • Quinacridone rose, also called permanent pose, is made from Pigment Violet PV 19. It is a powerful, transparent pinkish magenta.
  • Quinacridone violet, also made from PV 19, offers lustrous, dark, saturated tones that watercolor artist Jane Blundell notes you can wash out to a pink. 

The pigment you select may vary with brand and medium. Some are available in watercolors as well as oils and acrylics, while others are more limited.

The American Society for Testing and Materials tests the lightfastness of fine-art color pigments. You will find an ASTM rating on most of the better-quality paints:

  • ASTM 1: excellent lightfastness

  • ASTM 11: very good lightfastness

  • ASTM 111: not sufficiently lightfast

Professional artists should use paints with a lightfastness rating of 1 or 2.

Magenta in Graphics and Printing

Graphic designers, printers, product manufacturers and interior designers are more inclined than fine art painters to rely upon Pantone Matching System (PMS). The trademarked, internationally recognized system, codes and assigns a number to each of its premixed colors.

Examples of magenta hues in the PMS system include, but are not limited to:

  • Pantone 17-2036 TCX Magenta: a rose hue

  • Pantone 19-2428 TPX Magenta Purple: a deep purple

  • Pantone Magenta 0521 C: a violet hue
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